[the genius and his companion]
The story’s named after you. You are the hero of the story. You have the power, you have the drama, you have it all.
But is the story actually “about” you?
Simple answer: no.
Who’s it about, then? It’s about the female companion. It’s about the girl who serves as something between an audience-insert and a foil for our eponymous hero.
The Genius and his Companion, “companion” being the Doctor Who terminology.
This trope guides a handful of major stories. The top few that I think of are Doctor Who, Vampire Hunter D, and Sherlock Holmes.
What makes a genius? Outstanding performance, ability, intelligence? That’s one part. But any old schmuck (non-“genius”) demonstrate these, as well. Maybe not to quite the same extent of performance, but, regardless, there is something else from our perspective that separates the genius and the “any old schmuck” (assuming you’re the one of almost everyone who fits into the latter category).
The genius defies definition. He is incomprehensible. An enigma, even.
That’s it. The genius seems “different.” He seems, in some way, not human, considering that my personal experiences and understanding exhaustively encompass the idea of “human.”
And what do authors do with exaggerated or hyperbolic language like this? “He’s not human!” Why, of course, an author will make the character something that’s not a human (beep boop).
Doctor Who’s The Doctor? A time-traveling Alien. The titular D? A half-vampire, half-human Dhampir. Sherlock Holmes? Well, okay, maybe Holmes is a little bit all-human.
So our hero’s beyond human understanding? Doesn’t this make it a little hard to tell his story in a convincing way?
Well, that’s where a bit of creative narration comes in.
We get to see these geniuses’ stories through the perspective of a companion. Doctor Who features a rotating female companion whom he picks up in some timeline. D always finds himself accompanied and assisted in each story by a woman local to each plot. And Holmes has his trusty (“trusty” [?]) partner Watson.
These three franchises give a good survey of how the companion-perspective functions and what it contributes to the story.
Doctor Who is a television show; the companion’s account is much more implicit considering our outside-observer status, objectively watching real people in third-person. This is compensated for by having The Doctor reference a bunch of esoteric, unexplained alien culture and history and technology, and by his waving around an apparently omni-functional sonic screwdriver.
Vampire Hunter D: novels in third person. A character described in third person (the companion) can hardly be considered a narrator, right? Well, no, she can’t But it is by her actions and her interactions with D that we learn more about him and the story. Otherwise, D is mostly alien to us and acts seemingly instinctively, with his own analogues to The Doctor’s alien knowledge and technology.
And Sherlock Holmes. This is a much more obvious one. The stories are comprised of Dr. John Watson’s journal entries. We see the world—and Sherlock—only through his eyes, only from his worldview and background. And when Sherlock’s not there, he’s simply not there.
The purpose of the companion-perspective is mostly straight forward. Like I introduced the concept, it’s not just that the stories are from the companion’s perspective; they are about the companion. The companion may not be the hero or at the center of the adventure, but they are at the center of the story.
Stories are about growth, change, discovery, trial, and dynamics. Our geniuses do not exhibit these things. Doctor Who, Vampire Hunter D, and Sherlock Holmes are not about each titular character becoming the best in his field, they aren’t about the journey from apprentice to master. These characters already have all the tools necessary to solve mysteries, and nothing capability-wise is holding them back. They’re pretty great.
Our geniuses, as introduced, are also not very relatable. They are specifically something past what our experiences can relate to. In the cases of The Doctor and D, they aren’t even human.
As much as each of these stories is about alien and fantasy adventures and mysteries, they are about people. Humanity. When the companion looks at the genius, what does she learn about herself? When the genius is confronted by the companion with a moral conflict, how does he respond?
Doctor Who plots, in a popular vein of science fiction tradition, feature aliens and robots which demonstrate societal conflicts and offer social commentary on our own world through allegory and metaphor. Daleks and Autons are pretty much the pigs and the horses in Orwell’s Animal Farm (well, not those comparisons, specifically, but you get my point). Using The Doctor in the same way within the same cultural conflicts tells us about humans and human conflicts, by comparison.
Although the genius does not go through transformative arcs, there still is a learning process undergone, both by the genius and his companion. Of course Watson is constantly learning detective skills and strategies and honing his deductive reasoning by acting as assistant to Holmes. But we can often overlook his role, as well as the other franchises’ companions’, as human aide and moral compass for the genius. Sherlock Holmes can be ruthlessly logical and coldly calculating. The Doctor is not accustomed to things like human empathy and sentimentality, and he’s thrown in the position to decide the fate of human and alien civilizations. These two can forget the human element to life. The human factor in any conflict. And this is how the genius takes the counsel and learns from the companion.
The companion gives us a human narrative. The companion gives us growth. The companion gives us the unique storytelling experience of a limited and biased narrator.